Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2020: Jerry Lohr
From South Dakota Farm to California Wine Legend
Wine Industry Insider
By Laura Ness
How many years does it take to become a full on legend in the wine business? For Jerry Lohr, who grew up in a South Dakota farming family milking the cows twice daily, it took less than 20 to establish J. Lohr Wines as a brand synonymous with quality and value. Now, 50 years on from the day he decided to plant vines instead of being a custom home developer, he has no intention of slowing down. “I might back off a little on the day to day operations, but I still sign all the checks and I am the CFO. Plus I’m overseeing our building projects.” The company recently completed a new 67K SF winemaking facility in Greenfield capable of storing 46k barrels.
After graduating from South Dakota State University in 1958, Lohr moved to California, receiving an M.S. from Stanford in 1959. After pursuing a Ph.D. in civil engineering, he joined the Air Force in 1961, where he was a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, from 1961-1964. Back then, vineyards were seen as an investment and tax write-off, but Lohr saw something more. Guided by tasting experiences at Paul Masson and his own general curiosity, he decided to research the best places in California to plant. At age 34, he planted his first 280 acres of vines in Arroyo Seco in 1972, seeing its enormous potential. In fact, Jerry Lohr, along with the Wente and Mirassou families, was instrumental in making Monterey a household name in the wine world.
In 1986, convinced that Paso Robles was the next big thing, Lohr began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot there. Three years ago, the J. Lohr team created “Pure Paso,” a blend of 70% Cabernet and 30% Petite Sirah that Jerry feels truly embodies the region’s rich, bold mouthfeel and intense varietal character, caused by the 50 degree swings that occur daily during the growing season.
His hearty, obstacles-be-damned Midwest fortitude serves him well, as he travels back and forth from his home of 40 years in Saratoga, to his home away from home at the Black Oak motel in Paso Robles. He spends several days a week visiting the vineyard properties the company owns in Monterey and on the east side of Paso, checking up on ongoing construction and replanting projects. The company farms a total of 4,000 acres of estate vines on a total of 5,000 acres, including 35 acres in the St. Helena AVA of Napa.
“I don’t spend much time on the computer,” he says, as he’s driving up highway 101, talking on the car phone in his trusty Jeep Grand Cherokee. “I’m either in a meeting or driving. I don’t do email. I use the phone instead.”
With a staff of 200+ now that includes all three of his children, a sales staff of 50, two tasting rooms and their staff, plus 50 full and part time vineyard workers, J. Lohr has developed the kind of scalability that has allowed the company to reach a production of 1.7M cases yearly. “I never thought we’d get beyond 1M cases,” says Lohr, who targeted 125k cases when he started out. “We’re making 1M cases of Cabernet alone, at 5 different levels, all of it from Paso. The top 3 tiers are all hand-harvested.” He credits his mentor, Stan Wolfe from Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, his first tasting room hangout, for telling him, “Get to your optimal level of production and then raise prices.” He notes that despite the fact that labor costs are constantly going up, he won’t do things on the cheap. He’s always sought to make wine from the very best grapes possible, and growing his own makes that possible. “We’ve always been a better value.”
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines has achieved every goal the man has set, and then some. He’s personally received many accolades, including being honored in 2016 as an industry icon and pioneering winegrower by the Wine Enthusiast as an “American Wine Legend.” He’s only the third person in the sixteen-year history of the Wine Star Awards to receive this prestigious accolade.
“I’ve had lots of glory,” he says, “But right now, the thing I’m concerned about is the water situation. It’s coming to a head. We need 24” of rain to grow grapes in Paso and we got 14” in 2018. We’ve established viticulture practices opposite of those who pour on nitrogen and water to increase tonnage: we’re after quality.” He’s working hard to get the right supervisors elected to enact smart policy. “I spent three hours on it this morning.”
And the work is never done, which makes him both endearing and formidable to work with, and for.
President and COO, Jeff Meier, who has been with the company since 1983, when he became winemaker, says Jerry is an incredibly brilliant man and never puts off until tomorrow what can be done today. “His values are honesty and frankness, financial acumen and prudence, lifelong learning through investment in research and education (both through financial gifts, research cooperation with Universities, attendance of industry education events around the globe and investment in employees to accomplish those goals) for constant improvement, vertical integration (from vineyard ownership and farming to our own national and international sales force) and finally, thorough analysis of issues (from his civil engineering education at South Dakota State and Stanford) to inform timely, wise decision making.” That about sums it.
Director of Winemaking, Steve Peck, says, “Jerry has taught me the value of mutually beneficial outcomes in business. J. Lohr has been successful at least in part because Jerry respects and insists that our business partners be successful as well. That extends to the distributors, restaurants, and retailers that pour and feature our wine as well as our employees in the winery and in the vineyard. He’s just one of those guys that you want to work hard for.”
Lohr’s daughter, Cynthia, serves as chief brand officer, after a career building brands like Yahoo! and Alexa, which was sold to Amazon in 1999. She says her father’s core values are transparency, accountability, respect and authenticity. “If you spend 10 minutes with Jerry Lohr, you know quickly what he stands for, as his values resonate in everything he does.”
Cynthia admits that her dad has set a very high bar, referring to herself as “the farmer’s daughter,” as she rises before dawn to stay ahead of the workload.
She credits her father for his tireless advocacy. “My father is very focused, as we all know, and spends most of his free time advocating to better our industry through applied research, focused academics, even finding long-term solutions to dwindling natural resources. But he’s really interested in learning people’s stories, and has tremendous curiosity, not to mention grace, which he extends to each and every person he meets.”
Kristen Barnhisel, Winemaker, White Wines, is based in their Greenfield operation. She says Jerry inspires her to never stop experimenting. “I’ve also learned to think more about the big picture, what 10 or 20 years down the road might look like. His leadership style encourages me to focus on the details for high wine quality. It also allows me the freedom to think outside the box to keep experimenting to create the best wine possible. I’m proud to have had the J. Lohr Gesture RVG poured at the James Beard House ‘Women Chefs Rule’ dinner in 2018 and to have the 2017 Riverstone Chardonnay on the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Best Buy list.”
Jerry’s eldest son, Steve, who serves as CEO, truly enjoys the chance to work with his sister, Cynthia, and brother, Lawrence. It’s a rare opportunity for a family to work well together: something that Jerry credits to their individual skill sets meshing harmoniously with the needs of the business. Says Steve, “For one, it gives us a chance to see each other quite often, but more importantly, it’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off of each other knowing that we come from the same sense of shared values, goals and history with our business. I helped Jerry plant our first vineyard when I was ten years old, in Monterey County. Planting the vines inspired me to see the process through to completion, which in our case did not stop with the delivery of grapes to another winery, but having a consumer try our wine. The challenging mix of agriculture, production, sales, marketing and finance was (and still is) so intriguing; I knew even as a fifth-grader that this was something I would do for the rest of my life.”
He says his dad knows a thing or two about making ice cream. “One of my fondest childhood memories (outside of hopping on a tractor with dad in the vineyard) is making strawberry ice cream with Dad, Mom (Carol), Cynthia and Lawrence.”
Among Jerry’s many contributions to the industry, Steve points to the little known fact that his father funded the research into the DNA sequencing of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. “This information is being made public so that all may benefit from the greater understanding of this grape variety,” says Steve.
But it’s Jerry’s ability to engage with people one on one that has made him such a treasure. Says Meier, “One other thing about Jerry that really impressed me was his desire and ability to remember guest’s names – something that I am terrible at. I will never forget a distributor group visit of 45+ persons when I was first appointed winemaker. Jerry shook hands with each guest and 15 minutes later would call on them by name for questions. It made such a huge impression on those distributor personnel that they never forgot Jerry’s interest in taking the time to learn everyone’s name.”
Peck shares, “I love this story that I heard from a former employee about Jerry when I joined the company in 2007. Jerry is big on education. He had arranged for himself and six or eight employees to fly to Australia in 2004 to attend the AWITC Conference to catch up on the very latest in viticulture and enology research. It was close to midnight and he was checking in at the airport in San Francisco. The airline agent let Jerry know that they had a first class upgrade available for him at no charge. Jerry is 6 foot 5. ‘What? I couldn’t possibly! What would people think?’ Jerry took the coach cabin and rotated from seat to seat so that he could have time to talk in depth with each of the employees individually about projects in each of their respective areas. Why waste an opportunity to get some work done? That’s Jerry. Always humble and always on task.”